Roll On: Previewing The Utah Defense

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Star Lotulelei and a bunch of other guys who may or may not be good. OK, I'll just admit that my heart really isn't as much into this as it should be after losing to Stanford. October Big Game is the devil.

Utah isn't the perfect bounce-back opponent (not with Washington State and Colorado in the conference) but no matter how down you are on the Bears you have to admit that Cal has a solid chance to pick up their 4th win of the season on Saturday night. To do so they'll need to scrape up just enough offensive production against a solid but unspectacular defensive unit. Let's dive in.

Personnel

Defensive Line: So. LDE Nate Fakahafua; Sr. DT Dave Kruger; Sr. DT Star Lotulelei; Jr. RDE Joe Kruger OR Jr. RDE Trevor Reilly

The strength of the team. Lotulelei averages 4 tackles a game, which is good for an interior lineman and particularly impressive when you consider the constant double teams he tends to face. Fakahafua takes advantage of the attention Star gets to put up a similar level of production as his more heralded teammate on the line.

Of course, only the most talented defensive tackles can get constant pressure on the quarterback. Star only has two sacks this year and Utah's defense has only managed 13, or less than 2 a game. Their strength is in holding the point of attack on running plays, but pass pressure just hasn't been there.

Linebackers: Fr. Rover Reshawn Hooker; Sr. Mac Boo Anderson; Jr. Stud Trevor Reilly

Reilly is the only holdover from a very productive group of linebackers in 2011. Losing Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez's combined 205 combined tackles in 2011 hurts* and is one of the big reasons that Utah's defense this year is merely solid rather than the top 15 unit we saw last year.

Hooker and Anderson are currently listed as the other starters along with Reilly, but expect to see a few different players come in to the game:

In all, eight different players have started at the linebacker positions with only one, Trevor Reilly, starting all five games, at the stud position.

The other spots have been filled by seniors Dave Fagergren and Boo Andersen, sophomores Jacoby Hale, V.J. Fehoko and Jason Whittingham, and freshmen LT Filiaga and Hooker.

If Cal can get Isi, C.J. and company past the defensive line there are definitely vulnerabilities on the 2nd level. That's a tough task.

Secondary: Sr. CB Reggie Topps; Sr. CB Ryan Lacy, So. FS Eric Rowe; Jr. SS Brian Blechen

Four returning starters including three upperclassmen is usually the format for an excellent secondary, but it hasn't quite turned out that way so far this season. It's worth noting that this unit doesn't have great depth, and Eric Rowe missed the Arizona State and BYU games with an injury.

The real problem has been a lack of turnovers. Lacy has one of just two interceptions for the Utah defense - the other came from a defensive tackle. Brian Blechen made a name for himself with big plays last year (3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles) but has yet to be involved in a single turnover this season. Perhaps that's just because opposing teams know there's no reason to force passes if the Utah offense isn't going to punish their conservatism.

This Season

  • 114 yards allowed (1.86 yards/play) in a 41-0 win over Northern Colorado
  • 380 yards allowed (5.67 yards/play) in a 27-20 loss to Utah State
  • 312 yards allowed (3.94 yards/play) in a 24-21 win over BYU
  • 512 yards allowed (6.92 yards/play) in a 37-7 loss to Arizona State
  • 432 yards allowed (6.97 yards/play) in a 38-28 loss to USC
  • 354 yards allowed (5.20 yards/play) in a 21-14 loss to UCLA
  • 227 yards allowed (3.22 yards/play) in a 21-7 loss to Oregon State

Obviously, the superlative statistical performance against Northern Colorado (a bad team even by FCS standards) doesn't mean much. What's interesting to note is how opposing offenses have tried to break down Utah.

As you'll see below, Utah is better against the run than the pass. Yet both UCLA and Oregon State elected to run the ball twice as often as they passed. That's really a statement about how weak Utah's offense is. Both Jim Mora and Mike Riley got out to early leads and decided it was better to play it safe, eat some clock, and avoid mistakes, secure in the knowledge that the only way Utah was going to come back was if their opponents let them.

Against the Run

Now that enough games have been played, we'll be adding in some advanced stats to the equation. If you want to read up on S&P+ (and other advanced metrics), head on over to footballoutsiders.

3.18 yards allowed/attempt, 17th in the nation
Rush defense S&P+ ranking: 36th in the nation

This may as well be called the Lotulelei effect. When an interior lineman constantly demands a double team almost regardless of the playcall and still gets a decent amount of tackles, that's just going to free up his teammates to get to the running back. As a result, Utah has been pretty darned effective against the run. Probably not 17th-in-the-nation-good, as the raw numbers are heavily influenced by playing utterly toothless attacks against N. Colorado and BYU. But still plenty good to have me concerned about Cal's ability to set up manageable 2nd and 3rd down plays.

The good news is that they aren't as good as Stanford. Hooray for small victories. I think We could find some success attacking the outside with Isi and Bigelow, but this probably isn't the best game for C.J. (especially coming off an injury) and interior runs.

Against the Pass

7.6 yards allowed/attempt, 88th in the nation
Pass defense S&P+ ranking: 62nd in the nation

Utah got pretty well torched through the air by Arizona State and USC, but there's not a ton of shame in that. Oregon State and UCLA hardly even tried. If we're lucky, Cal can employ the exact same strategy so that the game isn't in Maynard's hands. It worked last year when Cal ran the ball 13 more times than they passed.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

9 turnovers forced (7 fumbles, 2 interceptions), 96th in the nation

Exactly four teams have fewer interceptions than Utah. Music to my ears. If you're the pessimistic type, you might note that Utah leads the nation in fumbles forced. I feel like that's closer to the fluky side of things, but it probably means something.

3rd Down

Opponent conversion percentage of 36.00%, 45th in the nation

I like our chances if only because we won't constantly be in 3-10+ situations this week . . . RIGHT?

Red Zone
Opponent scoring percentage of 86.36%, 95
th in the nation; Opponent touchdown percentage of 72.73%, 113th in the nation.

You would think that having a stud interior lineman would be a big benefit in red zone situations, but if that's the case it hasn't made much of a different for Utah so far this year.

Conclusions

If this game goes the way we all hope, anything I have to say about the Utah defense might be almost irrelevant. In two straight games teams have gotten out to early leads and basically shut it down in terms of offensive creativity. For all of Cal's struggles, there's no reason to think that the Bears can't hypothetically do the same thing.

While Utah is definitely better against the run than the pass, there's a definite risk/reward imbalance in the choice. Utah absolutely depends on other teams making mistakes to win games. USC handed Utah 14 free points and still won with relative ease. It took two huge turnovers for Utah to notch their only FBS win of the season.

In that regard, they sound like Cal, who needed UCLA to self-immolate to win. But Cal can play mistake free football and ride their defense to the win. Expect a conservative gameplan, and embrace it.

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